2014 Preview: Bengals need Dalton to carry them to playoff success
JUL 04, 2014 8:01a ET
With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it's the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes ... even February. Goodbye, offseason!
Today, we continue the series with the Cincinnati Bengals.
2013: 11-5; First place AFC North; lost to San Diego 27-10 in AFC Wild Card.
Head coach: Marvin Lewis
1. Can QB Andy Dalton get the Bengals over the hump?
The Bengals have improved their record each of Dalton's three seasons leading the offense, going from a surprise 9-7 his rookie season of 2011 to 10-6 in 2012 and then last season's 11-5 mark with a division championship on top of it. He's been a big reason why they've improved. They've also lost in the first round of the playoffs each of those seasons. Dalton has completed less than 57 percent of his passes in the postseason and thrown just one touchdown pass compared to six interceptions. He turned the ball over on three straight possessions of last January's loss to the Chargers as the Bengals were shut out in the second half after leading 10-7 at halftime.
Dalton is entering the final season of his rookie deal. He and the team have talked contract extension but this is a situation similar to what Baltimore and Joe Flacco went through two years ago. Flacco rolled the dice and won as he led the Ravens to the franchise's Super Bowl title. Flacco got his extension that offseason. The big difference is that Flacco and the Ravens had actually won some playoff games whereas Dalton has been a focal point of why the Bengals have not. Dalton might get that extension but if the Bengals are going to be the team many believe they can be Dalton has to be more than an average quarterback.
2. How does the defense replace Michael Johnson?
Johnson played under the franchise tag in 2013 and then got paid a hefty sum (five years, $43.75 million, $24 million guaranteed) by Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. He has gone from a raw physical talent to an every-down end who is a difference-maker as a pass rusher and helped the Bengals become a top-three defense with its defensive line as its foundation.
One organizational aspect that has helped turned the Bengals around from NFL afterthought to playoff contender is their ability to scout, draft and develop players, modeling what division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh have successfully done over the years. The Bengals knew they were likely to lose Johnson in free agency but they locked up other top players like Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap to long-term deals as well as a veteran in Wallace Gilberry who wasn't wanted by Kansas City or Tampa Bay but has fit in perfectly in the Cincinnati scheme (14 sacks in 30 games). They used a second-round pick on Margus Hunt in 2013 and a third-round pick on West Virginia's Will Clarke this year, two players who fit into the same category of raw, physical talent that they once saw Johnson.
3. Is Marvin Lewis on the hot seat?
If Lewis coached for any other franchise in the NFL, he wouldn't be entering his 12th season with the same team, longevity only Bill Belichick in New England can currently claim. But the Bengals aren't any other NFL franchise. Owner Mike Brown loathes firing anyone and Lewis, despite a record that is just five games over .500 in the regular season (90-85-1) and is winless in five postseason games, has made the Bengals a perennial playoff contender.
Lewis and Brown's relationship has worked well for both. There is no middle man between them. Lewis is under contract through 2015 after signing a one-year extension this past March and unless the Bengals absolutely go into the tank this season he'll be around to fulfill that contract. Lewis lost both of his coordinators in January to head coaching jobs; former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is now with Washington while former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is running the show in Minnesota. The transition to Hue Jackson as OC and Paul Guenther as DC was helped by the fact that both were already on staff but it's also a chance for Lewis to breathe some new life into the team.
Running back Giovani Bernard
It might be hard to consider Bernard as breaking out this season after he produced more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns as a rookie but Bernard is expected to have an expanded role in his second season with Hue Jackson calling the plays. Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis got about the same number of total touches last season but this season Bernard will be the primary back. He's tough enough and has the vision to run inside despite being just 5-9, 208 pounds. He's going to get more than the 170 rushing attempts he got last season and should become more disciplined in choosing his lanes and not taking as many negative plays.
Bernard has the ability to go the distance every time he touches the ball. The Bengals plan on lining him up more as a receiver this season as they work second-round pick Jeremy Hill into the rotation. The Bengals believe Bernard can be a Ray Rice-type threat and with so many weapons available to them offensively, most notably receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, Bernard can have a significant impact by drawing attention away from others.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Bengals lost 10 players to injured reserve last season, including eight on a defense that still finished ranked No. 3 overall in the NFL. Starters like All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall were a part of a total of 58 games, not including the postseason, missed by key defensive personnel.
Atkins has been progressing back from a torn ACL suffered on Halloween night in Miami. He is expected to be ready for the start of the season. Hall suffered a torn Achilles tendon at Detroit 11 days prior to Atkins' injury. It was his second Achilles injury in three seasons; this time it was his right Achilles. He tore the left one in 2011 but came back to have a strong 2012 season, which gives the Bengals reason for optimism.
The Bengals believed they had plenty of depth going into last season and how they performed with all of the injuries proved them right. As well as players like Brandon Thompson played in place of Atkins or a Chris Crocker taking over in the slot for Hall, having those frontline players back should make life less stressful for new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
REASON FOR PANIC
Has Andy Dalton reached his peak? Is he already all that he will be as an NFL quarterback? The Bengals have the pieces in place to be a Super Bowl contender but the biggest question facing them is: can the fourth-year quarterback be the player they need him to be in the postseason?
So far that answer has been no. Dalton has had his moments in the regular season and has come up big enough to get the Bengals into the postseason three straight seasons, a first for the franchise. He's never missed a start and has led the Bengals to 30 wins in his three seasons. He set single-season franchise records for passing yards (4,293) and touchdown passes (33) last season and he is one of just three quarterbacks in NFL history along with Peyton Manning and Cam Newton to throw for more than 3,000 yards in each of his first three seasons.
But those postseason numbers are impossible to hide. Just one touchdown pass. Six interceptions, plus a lost fumble. The Bengals have averaged just 11 points in the three playoff games under Dalton and the defense accounted for one of the two touchdowns they scored. There are comparisons between Dalton and Flacco but even before the Ravens won the Super Bowl two years ago Flacco had gone head-to-head with Tom Brady twice on the road and out-played Brady in consecutive AFC championship games.
Andy Dalton is going to hear the questions all season long until he can provide a different answer.
ALEX MARVEZ'S 2014 PREDICTION
Reaching the playoffs once was reason for celebration in Cincinnati. Expectations are much higher now after three consecutive postseason appearances – and three lopsided first-round losses. Head coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton have taken the most heat for those crushing defeats. But there will also be plenty of pressure this season on new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther as he tries to fill the giant void left behind by Mike Zimmer, whose work in Cincinnati helped land him Minnesota's head coaching gig. Prediction: 10-6